November 28, 2011

Bienvenidos a France

My public school education in the US led me to believe that most everyone in the world speaks English, and if they don't, they SHOULD. My schools in Colorado, known for as much diversity as skim milk, offered language classes beginning in 7th grade. Spanish was the obviously cool and practical choice, growing up with the base of "margarita" and "chips and salsa." French was for the few smarty pants kids who wanted to feel different or superior, and the German class had 5 students in its prime since no one spoke German in the area. At least the French students could practice their French at The Melting Pot. Mmm, fondue!
Half of my lifetime and one Spanish degree later, Hens on Ice has plopped me in France, ill-prepared to communicate. That Spanish degree feels pretty good in Spain and at Chipotle, but it may as well wipe the cheese off my nose here in France. Over the summer, I aimed to gain a basic understanding of the French language over the summer. That basic understanding turned into me buying a $2 book of French phrases off Amazon and throwing the dusty ting in my suitcase. Bon voyage!

My French vocabulary consists of about 10 words, and most of the people in Lille speak 10 words or less of English. That leaves more than a few gaps, filled in by blank smiles, "merci," and a Spanish word for good measure. I am at least making the effort to converse in the local tongue, even though a cat usually has a hold of it. My hope is that "bon jour" and "merci" carry me through an elegant conversation, but it usually gets a French mouthful spewed at me. I hold out some money with a glassy smile, especially if it's a bartender, and add a few more "mercis." I just hope I get the correct change.

France is also like other countries in that it seems there are some social issues, none of which I understand. The youthful French activists have approached me multiple times in front of markets, toilets and ATMs with their hopeful, passionates eyes and words. But those words here are in French and I went to Colorado public school. I'd love to stop, but it could only make matters worse. Sadly, my only option is to give an awkward smirk, quickly glance away and keep moving full speed ahead...or away. No comprendo.

So as I pick up a few random French words, I am humbled daily by being in a place in the world that I was essentially taught would not exist - a place where I cannot comprehend the way most people are communicating around me. Some people have said that most communication is non verbal, but those people clearly have not been to a French restaurant where they thought they ordered a mixed meat paella, and it turns out they ordered a chicken thigh with rice. Bon appetit!

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